Amid a surge of cases of listeriosis, the disease caused by the listeria bacterium, several of the country’s food safety bodies have jointly issued an alert over the risks involved in eating smoked fish – especially during pregnancy. Their top tip to avoid infection is that fish be cooked before consumption. They said: “We are working closely with UK partners across government to ensure that this advice is as clear as possible.”
Listeria is widespread in the environment and can contaminate a range of food at low or standard refrigeration temperatures, the UKHSA, Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland said.
While it is of most concern in chilled, ready to eat foods that do not require further cooking, such as smoked fish, “thorough cooking” can destroy the bacteria, they added.
Whole-genome sequencing analysis has identified an outbreak of 12 linked cases of listeriosis in England and Scotland since 2020, six of which were registered this year.
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The majority of these individuals said they had eaten smoked fish.
Tina Potter, head of incidents at the Food Standards Agency, said smoked products do not need to be avoided, but it should be ensured “risks are reduced as far as possible”.
She added: “You can do this by keeping chilled ready-to-eat smoked fish cold, always using products by their use-by date, following the storage and usage instructions on the label, and cooking or reheating smoked fish until it is piping hot right through.”
Meanwhile, those with weakened immune systems or over 65 years old could develop more serious infections, including meningitis and severe sepsis.
People taking medication that can weaken the immune system, or who have had an organ transplant are urged to be careful.
As are patients with an alcohol dependency or iron overload.
Professor Saheer Gharbia, interim deputy director gastrointestinal infections and food safety (One Health) at UKHSA, said: “Listeria infection in most people is usually either unnoticed or may cause very mild gastrointestinal illness.
“However, it can have more serious consequences for some people.
“If you have any concerns about your health please speak to your midwife, GP or hospital specialist team.”
Given the ongoing outbreak, advice for avoiding listeriosis infection is being updated on the NHS to include smoked fish as a high-risk product.